Leaving Microsoft to Change the World

John Wood was a hard-working Microsoft executive, taking a rare vacation in 1998, when a chance encounter while backpacking in the Himalayas changed his life.

At a trekker's lodge, with a cold evening wind blowing off the mountains, he ordered a beer and fell into conversation with a man who worked for Nepal's education system. Intrigued by their banter, Wood accompanied the man to see a nearby school and its library -- a reading space oddly devoid of books.

"The room was empty, and the only thing covering the walls was one old, dog-eared world map," Wood later wrote. He says his heart sank at grasping the tiny nation's rampant poverty and illiteracy.

The experience would alter not just Wood's future, but the future of millions. Within two years, Wood quit his lucrative marketing job to pursue a greater mission: furnishing books to those without them. His nonprofit organization, Room to Read, has distributed more than 7 million books in 10 years to 5 million youngsters in undeveloped parts of Asia and Africa. The San Francisco-based charity also has constructed 1,100 schools and 10,000 libraries and funded more than 9,000 scholarships.

Writing the Book
Wood chronicled early phases of the campaign in a book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's Odyssey to Educate the World's Children. Since its release in 2006, the extraordinary ride has only accelerated.

"It's gone beyond my wildest dreams," says Wood, who is 46. "When Leaving Microsoft came out, we were a $7 million-per-annum organization. Today we have fundraising chapters in 47 cities around the world. We'll probably raise $32 million this year. I get e-mails from kids in Cambodia who have learned to read and write me from cybercafes. A lot of it is because of the book."

Wood says he was stunned when he first saw a United Nations estimate that 850 million people -- one in seven, worldwide -- are illiterate, usually because they lack the books and training to learn. He had been such an avid reader while growing up in Athens, Pa., that he was given a bicycle for his 10th birthday so he could get to the library, three miles away, on his own. Wood persuaded a kindly librarian to raise the limit so he could check out a dozen books at a time.

The idea that such huge populations -- a large share of them children -- could not get access to books seemed intolerable to him. "These children would not get a second chance," he says. "Next year or a decade from now would be too late."

Commando for Literacy
Always a high-energy achiever, Wood had spent seven years making good money at Microsoft, where he was instrumental in the software Goliath's international expansion in the 1990s. Based in Australia and later in China, he played what he describes as "a game of Twister on a global scale . . . having to be in seven places at once." Wood worked nights and weekends. "Vacation was for people who were soft," he wrote. "I had adopted the commando lifestyle of a corporate warrior."

Now that he's a commando for literacy, Wood says he fights harder than ever. He departed last week for a month of meetings -- in Portland, Calgary, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, London and New York again -- before he finally returns home to San Francisco in late November.

"I'm probably on the road 250 days of the year," Wood says. "I travel more than I've ever traveled, but it's my passion. I'm happy to do it. The fact I can land in New York or Amsterdam or Singapore and know there are people on my side, that gives me energy. I'm working 24/7 with a smile on my face."

Investing in Children's Futures
Angel investor M.R. Rangaswami, co-founder of the Sand Hill Group in San Francisco, remembers meeting Wood in 2003 and inviting him to speak at a major software conference. "At the end, we had people in tears," Rangaswami says. "We had a standing ovation, which never happens at these events. He's a very, very dynamic speaker, but he can also execute. Very few people have this great talent to do both."

Rangaswami, who has sunk money into 30 corporate startups and nearly 20 nonprofits, contributed seed funding through his SHG Foundation and calls Room to Read the best performer he has had. "These guys are continuing to deliver," Rangaswami says. "That's what I like. There are hundreds of millions of children who need this service."

Wood's contacts in the tech industry have been vital in collecting the $100 million he has drummed up so far. The Draper Richards Foundation gave early money. So did the Skoll Foundation, which followed a three-year, $1 million award with another grant for $750,000. Skoll considers Room to Read one of the top performers in its portfolio based on what it has achieved and the efficiency of the organization, which relies heavily on volunteers, donated hotel rooms and other money-saving measures, says Skoll's senior program officer, Ana Zacapa.

Nearly all of Room to Read's operating funds come from foundation and corporation grants and private donations.

"They are building libraries and schools and providing teaching materials in locations where these things have never existed or the quality has not been very good," Zacapa says. "It's critical work."

Wood has expanded the venture into nine countries -- Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Zambia. In 2011 he hopes to add Tanzania and to continue expanding the breadth of the aid.

Help From Bill Clinton
During the Clinton Global Initiative, the former President's annual problem-solving conference in New York, Wood committed to a new goal of helping 1 million girls get a better education by 2012, in part by training teachers. Girls are often neglected in countries with underfunded school systems, he says.

Marilia Bezerra, director of commitments for Clinton's invitation-only conference held in September, lauded Wood's 300-member organization for its innovative approach to helping people better themselves. "We are particularly impressed," she says, "by the way they work with a community to develop reading materials in local languages."

Early on, most of the books delivered by Room to Read were in English. More recently, the group has functioned as a specialty publisher, creating more than 400 books in 22 local languages. Four million copies have been shipped, the group says.

Wood says he likes that the Clinton Global Initiative asks its participants to make promises. "It literally is 'Sign on the dotted line; this is what you're going to do,'" Wood says. One of the thrills of participating in the conference was being recognized by Bill Clinton a few years ago. "He saw me in the crowd, looked me in the eye and said, 'John Wood! I've been reading your book!' He had been recommending it to everybody."

Clinton wrote a blurb that now appears on the cover of the paperback edition. It says of Wood, "Just think what would happen if a couple of hundred people followed his example."

Worth the Effort
It isn't necessarily easy. "When I started Room to Read, it was a very lonely pursuit," says Wood, who broke up with a steady girlfriend when he left Microsoft's regional office in Beijing. "It was just me and a dream."

The travel is exhausting. Wood isn't sure how much longer he will choose to run a program that requires such single-minded commitment, year in and year out. A mammoth amount of work remains to be done, but it satisfies him to know that important strides have been made.

"I feel like I'm on a winning team," Wood says. "I am not the leader of an organization. I'm one of the leaders of a movement. We're very serious about getting things done."

SecondAct contributor David Ferrell is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and the author of Screwball, a comic baseball novel.


At a Glance: Room to Read
Annual Budget: $30 million
Location: Based in San Francisco; fundraising offices include New York, Hong Kong, London, Tokyo and Delhi.
Nations where books and educational aid are provided: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Zambia
Goal: to help 10 million children by 2015 and expand opportunities for young girls
Follow: Room to Read is on Twitter here.

© 2010 Entrepreneur Media, Inc. dba SecondAct

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